“CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue” bust is latest of a 20-year series
HEBRON, Connecticut––The arrest of CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue founder Joann M. Connelly, 59, announced by the Connecticut State Police on March 26, 2022, has disquieting echoes of previous alleged “rescue” hoarding cases that legislation passed almost a decade earlier was supposed to stop.
Instead, those cases have only become more numerous, often involving more animals over more years, in custody of alleged repeat offenders, before law enforcement intervenes.
Suspect “rescues” appear to be bringing more animals into Connecticut than ever, many of them dogs bought directly from so-called “puppy millers,” selling them for even higher prices.
No leadership from HSUS
Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the U.S. state representative for Connecticut, Anne Hornish, who might reasonably be expected to be pursuing legislation to crack down on “rescue” hoarding, has instead spent the past several years trying to save her own “rescue” pit bull Dexter from an euthanasia order issued after Dexter killed Janet D’Aleo, 95.
Dexter, a three-year-old pit bull apparently acquired from rescuer Jessica Kaczynski, had been in the Hornish home for about four months, after flunking out of several previous homes.
(See HSUS rep Anne Hornish & husband fail to pay boarding fees for killer pit bull.)
Full speed ahead & damn the doggies!
How do you tell a rescue angel from a puppy miller at 60 mph on I-95? asked ANIMALS 24-7 on July 21, 2015, after a string of high-profile busts of “rescue” dog and cat transporters for cruelty and neglect of animals in transit brought into effect a Connecticut law requiring “rescues” to register with the state Department of Agriculture.
The most evident response from the Connecticut legislature appears to have been complaints that due to traffic congestion centering on Hartford, the state capital, it is often not possible to go 60 miles per hour on I-95, with or without a cargo of overheated dogs vomiting in the back of a rented “rescue” van.
Registered v. certifiable
Connelly, now held on bond of $10,000, registered CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue and obtained IRS 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the organization in 2019.
That did not keep her out of trouble.
CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue has apparently not filed IRS Form 990 for any of the three years previous to 2022 that it has existed.
Worse, the Connecticut State Police media release said, “Despite many anonymous complaints [about of CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue] received by State Animal Control,” beginning at least as far back as February 2020, “there was no substantive evidence to apply for a search and seizure warrant.”
“Not dirty enough to alarm health department”
The CT Pregnant Dog & Cat Rescue premises were “previously searched by animal control in 2020,” reported Olivia Lank, Jayne Chacko, Sydney Reynolds, and Lauren Linder of WTNH News 8 in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Though the initial search reported this location to be ‘dirty,’ it wasn’t dirty enough to alarm the health department,” Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder said.
“A welfare check of a dog was filed in Feb. 2021, though the officer at the time could not get into the home,” Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder continued.
“In July 2021, Ocean State Veterinarian Services in Rhode Island alerted the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Animal Control unit concerning Connelly and three dogs,’ because the dogs exhibited symptoms of distemper,” Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder summarized.
Investigating, Connecticut Animal Control found that two other puppies from the same litter had already been euthanized by another veterinarian.
“25 dogs in unclean, cramped conditions” but no warrant
“She was issued infractions for failure to notify of an adoption event and was warned for not vetting the animals properly,” Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder said, adding that “In September 2021, an officer received a complaint about neglect on Connelly’s part” allegedly involving more than 25 dogs kept at her house “in unclean, cramped conditions,” but “Once again, officers were unable to access the home.”
Finally, the Connecticut State Police media release said, “On March 23, 2022, a Department of Children & Families investigator requested assistance during a site visit for information received that the owner had moved and a large number of animals had been left behind.
“A state trooper joined a local and a state animal control officer to investigate.”
“News 8 was told multiple agencies were on scene, including the Department of Children and Families, for a 17-year-old that was involved,” reported Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder.
Stunk out loud
Continued the Connecticut State Police media release, “[T]he conditions in the home were found to be deplorable and unsanitary, and an overwhelming odor of urine and feces could be smelled from outside of the residence.”
That by itself should have been sufficient to obtain a search warrant if anyone in authority had actually so much as stood on the public sidewalk in response to the previous complaints, anonymous though they were and therefore useless as courtroom testimony.
The investigating officers found 33 dogs, 28 cats, and two parakeets in the house, all in cages except for five cats, one dog, and four puppies about six months of age, they reported.
“A pony, three goats, & geese”
“The floors throughout the home were covered in urine and feces, newspaper clippings, dog food and dirt,” the Connecticut State Police media release detailed. “Outside of the home there was a pony, three goats, and geese” in “shared living quarters that contained approximately three feet of manure and hay.”
Lank, Chacko, Reynolds, and Linder did not include the geese in their animal count, but mentioned five ducks.
Connelly, arrested two days later, “is charged with three counts of cruelty to animals,” a Class D felony, one charge each for the dogs, cats, and parakeets, according to the Connecticut State Police media release.
The Connelly case echoes the long-running Robbin D’Urso saga, 2003-2010, which perhaps more than any other inspired the Connecticut registration requirement for dog and cat rescues.
D’Urso, also known by several variations of her name and as Robbin A Ciullo and Robbin Mikulak, used many Connecticut addresses over the years, plus some in New York state and New Jersey.
D’Urso, if still alive, would be 59-60 now. Her present whereabouts are uncertain.
Heading a no-kill “rescue” called Companions for Life, D’Urso appears to have first come to law enforcement notice in August 2003, after itinerant evangelical minister Ivan Truman, then 65, of Smith Grove, Kentucky, was found with 69 dogs packed into 12 carrying crates in his van.
11 dogs dead from heat stress
Truman, staying overnight with a relative, had left the van parked on Main Street in Stratford, Connecticut.
Three cats were reportedly loose in the van. Eleven of the 69 dogs were already dead from heat stress. Truman was charged with 10 counts of cruelty.
D’Urso, identified as “a former animal control officer in Trumbull,” Connecticut, though not remembered as such by longtime Trumbull animal welfare volunteers, was among the intended recipients of the animals, reported Hartford Courant staff writer Loretta Waldman.
(See How the ASPCA cooked 26 dogs in a truck: source comes forward.)
Previously ran daycare
According to Bridgeport Superior Court judge Holly Abery-Wetstone in her July 7, 2008 memorandum of decision finalizing the divorce of Robbin D’Urso from her second husband, Vincent D’Urso, Robbin D’Urso “ran a daycare facility from the family home (prior to 1996), and the dog rescue operation known as Companions for Life (from 1997-2006).”
Robbin D’Urso “voluntarily turned in her daycare license,” Abery-Wetstone recounted. “However, she testified that her former employees continued to run the daycare business in the basement of her home after she relinquished her license.
“The dog rescue business, Companions for Life, obtained dogs from Virginia and placed them for adoption for a fee.
Husband was fired because “he stunk like dogs”
“Sometime between 1997 and 2004,” Abery-Wetstone continued, “the Office of the Attorney General asked [Robbin D’Urso] to set up a way to track money she received for adoptions. Mrs. D’Urso admitted she co-mingled adoption money with personal funds until the Office of the Attorney General told her not to do so,” and in “testimony on November 14, 2006, she admitted she had not filed business or personal income tax returns for several years.”
Vincent D’Urso, Abery-Wetstone wrote, “testified that the condition of the house, while he lived at home, was disgusting, with dog feces everywhere. He estimated that in October of 2004, his wife kept 60 to 70 dogs in the family home. When the plaintiff was terminated from his employment, he was told he “stunk like dogs.”
“Wanted to live in house, not kennel”
“He testified that he wanted to live in a house, not a kennel, and that the marriage broke down due to the excessive number of dogs residing in the family home.
“During the course of the marriage,” Vincent D’Urso testified, according to Abery-Wetstone’s summary, Robbin D’Urso “was verbally and physically abusive to him and the children, she drank and smoked pot, and she abused prescription drugs.”
Abery-Wetstone awarded permanent custody of the three D’Urso children to Vincent D’Urso.
Earlier, on July 28, 2006, Bridgeport Superior Court judge Arthur Hiller provisionally awarded sole custody of the children to Vincent D’Urso, pending Robbin D’Urso’s compliance with a home clean-up order issued one day after police seized 129 dogs from her premises in Fairfield, Connecticut, and changed her with 14 counts of cruelty.
“She was also charged with contempt of court for allegedly violating an order to keep no more than three dogs on the property,” reported Connecticut Post staff writers Andrew Brophy and Daniel Tepfer.
Ran through red lights
As in the Joann M. Connelly case, Robbin D’Urso was allowed to figuratively run through many red lights, flashed by many different agencies, before her activities were brought to a halt.
“Fairfield police also are investigating a complaint that Robbin D’Urso threatened one of her neighbors,” Brophy and Tepfer added in 2006.
This was after Vincent D’Urso alleged Robbin D’Urso had tried to poison him. Nothing appears to have come of either allegation.
Robbin D’Urso in 2006 “pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges and was placed on probation,” Tepfer followed up on December 15, 2010.
“However, she was arrested again in 2007 for violating terms of her probation that she not be allowed to have dogs at her home.
“According to witnesses, she had two pit bulls at the house. She was fined $1,500, but allowed to remain on probation.
Vanished from public record
“Three months later,” Tepfer continued, “an associate in [Robbin] D’Urso’s so-called animal rescue operation apparently was seen by a probation officer in the garage of her home with two dogs and she was then sentenced to 60 days in prison.
“On September 29, 2009,” Tepfer wrote, “she was arrested again and this time charged with attempted third-degree sexual assault and seven counts of risk of injury to a minor after police said her 14-year-old son complained that his mother had abused him and his two younger brothers,” including by “forcing them to stay in dog cages.”
Pleading guilty to three counts of reckless endangerment, Robbin D’Urso faced up to three years in prison.
At that point she appears to have all but vanished from the public record, though online sources continue to list her as living at some of her previous addresses.
The Fred Acker saga ran on even longer than the Robbin D’Urso saga, and apparently played out around the time Joann M. Connelly came into animal-related law enforcement view.
Though Acker had no known connection with either D’Urso or Connelly, his modus operandi was similar, except that he maintained a higher profile.
Connecticut, long before becoming a frequent base of operations for “rescues” rehoming dogs and cats into the greater New York City metropolitan area, was among the original “puppy mill” states.
Young families in the northern New York City suburbs would often take the then-scenic Merritt Parkway and turn north into then-rural Connecticut looking for “farmers” advertising puppies for sale.
Among those “farmers” were the proprietors of Weeborough Kennels on Spring Hill Road in Monroe, then a sleepy crossroads village half an hour north of Bridgeport.
Beginning in 1963, Weeborough Kennels sold apples, cut flowers, and especially puppies for about 25 years.
Acker, then 52, formed a no-kill organization called the Animal Adoption Network in 1998.
Acker bought the former Weeborough Kennels premises and kennel permit, which he said was still active, in July 2000, he told ANIMALS 24-7 in April 2005.
Acker paid more than half a million dollars for the property, now valued at as much as $1.5 million, “despite having a court judgment of several hundred thousand dollars” pending against him “in a case not related to animal welfare,” according to Mike Ellis of the Anderson Independent Mail newspaper in South Carolina.
Acker began keeping dogs and cats in the former Weeborough Kennels facilities, including the barn, a five-bedroom house built in 1780, and greenhouses, as well as the kennels proper.
$100,000 in legal fees
Acker claimed to have spent more than $100,000 in legal fees over the next six years, fighting complaints from neighbors that he was in violation of zoning. The Monroe, Easton and Newtown animal control units meanwhile impounded 11 of the 84 dogs and 32 cats kept on the premises.
Acker in September 2005 pleaded “no contest” to single counts of failure to vaccinate and breach of peace, and was fined $50, with a six-month prison term suspended. Cruelty and neglect charges filed against him were dropped.
By 2010 Acker was back in business at the same location, as the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Connecticut, unrelated to the Connecticut Humane Society, founded in 1881.
Cited in 2012 by the Town of Monroe for keeping more than the 29 dogs he was allowed to keep after the 2005 case, Acker relocated many of the dogs to the nearby towns of Bethlehem and Milford.
“Disappeared while out on bond”
By September 14, 2016 Acker had been convicted of neglect in both of those communities, had been sentenced to serve a year in prison plus three years on probation, was ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution, and was ordered to rehome any animal in his possession within 30 days.
Acker turned the SPCA of Connecticut over to the management of Susan and George Fernandez, who continue to operate the organization from the Spring Hill Road property in Monroe.
Acker himself “disappeared while out on bond pending appeal, and is now a fugitive,” Craig Malisow of the Houston Post reported on February 17, 2020.
Wherever Acker is now, he does not appear to have resurfaced doing animal rescue.
Tails of Courage
The Acker saga was soon followed by a series of cases involving one Krystel Lopez, now 35, doing business as Tails of Courage.
Charged with animal cruelty in Danbury, Connecticut in December 2017, Lopez in 2019 drew two years on probation after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment and breach of peace.
Tails of Courage resumed operations from premises in Wolcott later in 2019, but Lopez reportedly voluntarily surrendered her license to import dogs into Connecticut in mid-2019.
In November 2019 Lopez was charged with seven counts of animal cruelty, plus related charges of having invalid health certificates, improper possession of vaccines and serums for dogs and cats, and practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
Again receiving a probationary sentence, Lopez reportedly violated probation and was jailed in June 2021.
The Lopez cases have been followed by Desmond’s Army, a Connecticut organization which at least since 2016 has sought stricter law enforcement and stiffer sentencing in cruelty and neglect cases, but––though involving more animals––the Lopez cases were upstaged by the much more gruesome Heidi Lueders case.
Desmond’s Army followed the Lueders case too.
Former Bully Breed Rescue president Lueders, 34, was on February 9, 2022 acquitted by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Peter McShane of all five felony cruelty counts brought against her after the skeletal remains of five pit bulls in her care were on November 11, 2018 found dead in their cages in her rented home.
Lueders was, however, convicted of criminal damage to property for leaving the Fairfield home––not far from D’Urso’s former premises––filled with refuse, feces, needles, and other drug paraphernalia, along with the dead pit bulls.
Lueders, who since her 2018 arrest has spent just one hour in jail, still faces up to five years in prison on the property damage count.
Lueders is to return to court for sentencing on April 6, 2022.
(See “Rescuer” Heidi Lueders acquitted of allegedly starving five pit bulls to death.)
George Waters says
Very good information here, most if it which I have long forgotten – but appreciate being reminded of.
This sums up everything that is wrong with Connecticut: “…has disquieting echoes of previous alleged “rescue” hoarding cases that legislation passed almost a decade earlier was supposed to stop.
Instead, those cases have only become more numerous, often involving more animals over more years, in custody of alleged repeat offenders, before law enforcement intervenes.”
How Desmond’s Army can continue their crusade – I mean, they have to soon realize that it’s hard to keep morale up when even Heidi Lueders is found innocent of all the charges brought up against her [*I’m not even going to waste my time with the supposed up-coming sentencing regarding the conditions of the house, as last time I checked nobody has ever done jail time for trashing a home..]
I don’t even know where to begin, as your post here can’t help but make me wonder about this insanity of all these Connecticut Rescue agencies working with out of state dogs, I mean – aren’t there enough dogs and cats in CT looking for forever homes as it is ??
A few years back, I had a discussion with someone in person and she brought up some of the names mentioned in this article, and I mentioned how I was able to adopt my dog out of a very very bad situation where the dog was being crated like 22 hours a day while the so called rescuer sat and played video games, essentially ignoring the poor dogs cries for attention.
As a cat person, I knew that was completely both morally and ethically wrong, so over time I was able to strike a deal and save this dog from a fate worse than death [that was 12 years ago, and the dog just turned 14 and is living a very good life !!] because I felt I was morally obligated to do something, plus I could tell the dog liked me very much, as I liked this dog too.
Anyhow, the woman I was relating this to just shrugged her shoulders and said “…well that’s how it’s done, lots of dogs, lots of crates” – and with that I knew I was dealing with someone who needed to be seriously very far away from dogs.
There lies the problem – the general acceptance of this is how it’s done, which to me does not do the dogs [or any other animal for that matter..] any kind of favor, as to me there is no worse form of torture than neglect.
No animal deserves that !!
The whole transport thing – that just makes my blood boil.
Everything I come across some one who is proud of getting a rescue dog from 1000s of miles away, having to endure a horrific journey packed in tight with other poor souls in either a freezing cold or boiling hot truck/van/whatever… all I can do is pray for the animals, especially for those who didn’t survive the journey.
I would like to think that most of these people [Heidi included…] get/got into rescue work with the right intentions, and that is to be commended – but to knowingly allow things to fall into such a state of neglect, that is unforgivable – unless the person completely took ownership and accepted full responsibility of the tragic end result.
Apologies for this long comment, but these kinds of articles really upset me – that being said, it is important to know what is really going on with some of these agencies.
Too bad there’s not better laws/enforcement to protect the voiceless……..
Annoula Wylderich says
Connecticut isn’t the only state deserving of the “nut case” designation when it comes to this issue.
I often wonder about the mental state of some rescuers who end up warehousing animals in their homes/facilities, often ignoring their physical and emotional needs to the point where these animals need rescuing from the rescuer. I’ve been made aware of animals stuck in long-term boarding for months, where they don’t get walked or are denied vet care, and end up basically going crazy. When volunteers try to help or voice their concerns to the rescuer, they either get chastised or banned. Clearly, there need to be enforced regulations and harsher penalties if we hope to end this runaway practice of exploiting animals in the guise of “rescuing” them.